A Brief Glimpse into the Life and Works of Sherwood Anderson
Like all writers from the moment they put pen to paper, Anderson desired to be a great writer; however, much of his life was spent as a middle-class businessman in Ohio and Virginia, later becoming the owner of Marion Publishing Company and the owner and editor of two newspapers.
And even though he held a struggling career in writing that became overshadowed by the literary giants of the Lost Generation he inspired writers, both novelists and short story writers, who followed him such as Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Salinger, Steinbeck, and Thomas Wolfe.
He would even assist Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner in publishing their first books.
In 1925 Hemingway wrote to Sherwood Anderson (Selected Letters, 161-162):
“Sure, probably I was wrong about the Many Marriages… I will read it again some time when I can give it a better break. Reading anything as a serial is awfully hard on it. All criticism is shit anyway. Nobody knows anything about it except yourself. God knows people who are paid to have attitudes toward things, professional critics, make me sick; camp following eunochs of literature. They won’t even whore. They’re all virtuous and sterile. And how well meaning and high minded. But they’re all camp followers” (Phillips, Larry 138).
While in Chicago he became associated with the “Chicago Renaissance” during the early decades of the 20th century. Writers involved in the renaissance were Edgar Masters, Carl Sandburg, Ben Hecht, Theodore Dreiser, and Ernest Hemingway.
By 1920 Anderson had five books published, the one to propel him into stardom was Winesburg, Ohio, and it had established him as one of America’s top authors of the time, with much of his prose stemming from daily speech and thought to be highly naturalistic.
“If anything,” William L. Philips wrote, “Anderson was revolting from the mechanized, urbanized culture of the twentieth century” and that “his literary method was not essentially naturalistic, but lyrical and expressionistic” (376).
In the end, Anderson would be known for his works as an author, editor, essayist, playwright, and poet.
But it would be the small things, “between the material and spiritual worlds,” that would make the sum of his life, keeping him within the urbanized life of the South (Merrimen Web). His father, Irwin, was an alcoholic and his mother, Emma Smith, died when he was nineteen years old.
He never finished high school and hopped around from job to job, taking-on the nickname “Jobby.” He would enroll in the army to fight in the Spanish-American War from 1898-1899.
He eventually fathered three children and was married four times:
Anderson was once quoted as saying: “I am a lover and I have not found my thing to love.” He finally seemed to find happiness with his last wife.
In March, 1941, he died while traveling in Panama with an inflammation of the peritoneum, peritonitis. He is buried in Marion, Virginia and on his tombstone the inscription reads:
“Life not death is the greatest adventure.”
After his death his literary reputation dwindled until the 1970s when a resurgence in his work found a new interest with literary critics.
Sherwood’s greatest contribution to literature would be through his inspection of small town America, sex, marriage, and virtues.
He would write in the story “Seeds” that “the lives of people are like young trees in a forest. They are being choked by climbing vines. The vines are old thoughts and beliefs planted by dead men” and:
“There is a note that comes into the human voice by which you may know real weariness. It comes when one has been trying with all his heart and soul to think his way along some difficult road of thought. Of a sudden he finds himself unable to go on. Something within him stops. A tiny explosion takes place. He bursts into words and talks, perhaps foolishly. Little side currents of his nature he didn’t know were there run out and get themselves expressed. It is at such times that a man boasts, uses big words, makes a fool of himself in general” (from The Triumph of the Egg).
In Anderson’s short story “I Want to Know Why” the ideal between spiritual perfection and sexually debased actions comes to center stage. A fifteen-year-old boy runs away from home in order to witness a horse race in Saratoga. By the racetrack he spies two horses: Sunstreak and Middlestride.
Sunstreak is described thus:
“Sunstreak is like a girl you think about sometimes but never see” (Anderson in, Bausch 21).
“When you look at his head you want to kiss him” (Anderson in, Bausch 21).
“It makes you ache to see him. It hurts you.” (Anderson in, Bausch 21).
Middlestride is described thus:
Middlestride is long and looks awkward and is a gelding” (Anderson in, Bausch 21).
The boy is young like Middlestride but he “is on the verge of manhood and therefore ready for sexual initiation and identification with the stallion Sunstreak” (Ellis Web 4). Sunstreak wins the race as the boy predicts, thereby cementing the sexual side overtaking the innocence within the boy.
However, there can be some debate as to whether or not the sexuality is meant for male or female. At one point the boy looks in to the eyes of Sunstreak’s trainer, Jerry Tillford, and “something happened” to the boy and he states:
“I guess I loved the man as much as I did the horse because he knew what I knew” –and- “It was the first time I ever felt for a man like that” (Anderson in, Bausch 22).
A few things can be interpreted from these lines:
1) the boy was coming of age into sexuality and was drawn more to the man than the manifestation of the feminine found in the horse;
2) the boy was attracted to how a man can create perfection in something of the flesh.
In Anderson’s own life, he once was taken by another more experienced boy to peep in a girl’s window and watched her undress by the fire (Townsend in, Ellis Web).
When Anderson was a teen, he would go to a river and swim with a boy naked. One day another man intruded and the two boys had to hide beneath the bushes. They were naked and very close together, breathing and holding each other. Afterwards the boys dressed quickly and talked about having sex with women.
James Ellis states that:
“They thus had to make women bear the burden of physical sexuality and thereby maintain in the purely masculine relationship a communication that would not be sullied by sexuality. It was as though with men, Anderson hoped, man could maintain a spiritual relationship that he desired with his mother and with Woman in the abstract” (Web 1).
At the end of the story the boy follows a group of men to a brothel in the countryside. He peeps inside the window to find Jerry Tillford with a prostitute. The boy claims: “Jerry bragged in that bad woman house as I knew Sunstreak wouldn’t never have bragged” –and-
“Then, all of a sudden, I began to hate that man. I wanted to scream and rush into the room and kill him” –and- “I been thinking about it ever since. I can’t make it out…. Sometimes I’m so mad about it I want to fight someone. It gives me the fantods. What did he do it for? I want to know why” (Anderson in, Bausch 23).
Topics for Discussion:
- What specifically did the boy want to know? What would be your answer to his question and statement: “What did he do it for? I want to know why.” What did the man do?
- Was there a homosexual nature found in the story?
- Why did the boy love the man?
- What connection do the horses play in the story? Elaborate more on
Sunstreak and Middlestride.
- Why did the boy hate Jerry Tillford for bragging?
- What does Jerry Tillford represent?
- Was there a loss of innocence in the story?
- Is this another coming of age story or does Anderson take it beyond that definition?
- How do you interpret the story?
- Is Anderson a naturalist? Is he expressionistic?
- How does the writing style match the age and mentality of the protagonist?
If you have other ideas, please feel free to comment.
Alliger, David. “Coming of Age in ‘I Want to Know Why’ Boy’s Hero Falls from Grace in Sherwood Anderson’s Short Story.” Classic American Fiction: Suite101.com. 20 Jan. 2009. Web. 26 June 2010.
[Link: http://classic-american-fiction.suite… ]
Bausch, Richard, and R.V. Cassill, eds. The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, 7th edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. Print.
Ellis, James. “Sherwood Anderson’s fear of sexuality: horses, men, and homosexuality.” Bnet. Fall, 1993. Web. 26 June 2010.
[Link: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi… ]
Merrimen, C.D. “Biography of Sherwood Anderson.” The Literature Network. 2006. Web. 26 June 2010.
[Link: http://www.online-literature.com/sher… ]
Phillips, Larry W., ed. Ernest Hemingway on Writing. New York: Scribner, 1984. Print.
Phillips, William L. American Literature; Nov. 51, Vol. 23 Issue 3. North Carolina: Duke University Press. Print.
Short Story: “I Want to Know Why”: http://www.classicreader.com/book/262…
Article: “Sherwood Anderson’s fear of sexuality: horses, men, and homosexuality” by James Ellis:
Anderson’s Grave (Video): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5H2X6…
Windy McPherson’s Son, (1916, novel)
Marching Men, (1917, novel)
Mid-American Chants (1918, collection of poetry)
Winesburg, Ohio, (1919, novel)
Poor White, (1920, novel)
Triumph of the Egg, (1921, short stories)
Many Marriages, (1923, novel)
Horses and Men, (1923, short stories)
A Story-Teller’s Story, (1924, semi-autobiographical novel)
Sherwood Anderson’s Memoirs, (1924, memoirs)
An Exhibition of Paintings By Alfred H. Maurer, (1924, non-fiction)
Dark Laughter, (1925, novel)
A Meeting South, (1925, novel)
Modern Writer, (1925, non-fiction)
Tar: A Midwest Childhood, (1926, semi-autobiographical novel)
Sherwood Anderson’s Notebook, (1926, memoirs)
Hello Towns, (1929, non-fiction)
Alice: The Lost Novel, (1929, novel)
Onto Being Published, (1930, non-fiction)
Beyond Desire, (1932, novel)
Death in the Woods, (1933, short stories)
Puzzled America, (1935, essays)
Kit Brandon, (1936, novel)
Dreiser: A Biography, (1936, non-fiction)
Winesburg and Others, (1937, play)
Home Town, (1940, novel)
San Francisco at Christmas, (1940, memoirs)
Lives of Animals, (1966, novel)
Return to Winesburg, Ohio, (1967, essays)
The Memoirs of Sherwood Anderson, (1968, memoirs)
No Swank, (1970, novel)
Perhaps Women, (1970, novel)
The Buck Fever Papers, (1971, essays)
Ten Short Plays, (1972, plays)
Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein: Correspondence and Personal Essays, (1972, essays)
Nearer the Grass Roots, (1976, novel)
The Writer at His Craft, (1978, non-fiction)
Paul Rosenfeld: Voyager in the Arts, (1978, nonfiction)
The Teller’s Tale, (1982, novel)
Selected Letters: 1916 – 1933, (1984, letters)
Writer’s Diary: 1936–1941, (1987, memoir)
Early Writings of Sherwood Anderson, (1989, short stories)
Love Letters to Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson, (1990, letters)
The Selected Short Stories of Sherwood Anderson, (1995, short stories)
Southern Odyssey: Selected Writings By Sherwood Anderson, (1998, short stories)
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 350,000+ followers